Janet Coats Black – The Woman who founded Scotland’s longest running book prizes (1919-2019)

In celebration of the centennial of the James Tait Black Memorial Book Prizes the Centre for the History of the Book welcomed Lucinda Byatt on March 29th as she presented her research on the woman who made these prizes possible, Janet Coats Black. The James Tait Black Memorial Book Prizes are a collection of literary awards which are structured as three individual prizes each year in the categories of drama, fiction, and biography. Claiming the title of the longest-running prizes for literature offered in Scotland, the James Tait Black Memorial Book Prizes began in 1919 with Janet Coats Black, the wife of the man for whom the prize is named. Over the last century, however, the woman behind the prize has existed as a fringe historical figure with little more than rudimentary credit given when the prize is discussed. Janet Coats Black has often been overshadowed by the prizes famous nominees such as Agatha Christie and Zadie Smith, until Lucinda Byatt, a literary translator, historian, and tutor at the University of Edinburgh, began her research on Coats Black. In Byatt’s own words, the research began as a general enquiry into the history of the woman behind the prize but quickly became a personal endeavor when she discovered that Thomas Coats (1809-1883), Janet Coats Black’s father, was in fact Byatt’s great-great-great uncle.

During Byatt’s visit she presented some of the historical foundations which allowed for the creation of the prize. Tracing the history of both the Coats and Black family, Byatt revitalizes the rich relationships of these families using the surviving diary entries of Margaret Lothian Black, Janet’s sister-in-law and stepdaughter, as well as historical records from Paisley and Edinburgh in order to piece together the story of how one of the most prestigious prizes in Britain came to be. Her research begins with the parents of Janet, Thomas and Margaret Coats, residents of Paisley, Scotland. Thomas Coats was the fourth son of a family which ran a ‘cotton-spinning firm in Paisley’. Together Thomas and several of his brothers solidified their familial legacy in mills, fostering such an intimate relationship with their business and the city that supported it as to build a Coats family home across the street from their first mill and to offer half days for any school age children in order to allow them to pursue an education alongside their work. Setting an example for his children, Thomas was actively engaged with his community, donating to various causes in and around Paisley, including the Thomas Coats Memorial Church. One of eleven of Thomas’s children, Janet was born in 1844 and spent much of her life at her family home in Paisley, playing the organ at the local Baptist church and summering with her family. It was not until after Janet’s younger brother George met and became engaged to Margaret Lothian Black that she was introduced to James Tait Black, the father of George’s fiancé.

The Black family was as renowned as the Coats, with James Tait being a co-owner of the publisher A & C Black Ltd. as well as a musician, painter, and book-collector. Several of James’s watercolor works are in fact housed with the University of Edinburgh’s own Centre for Research and Collections and are available for viewing upon request. James and Janet were married in November of 1884, uniting the two families for a second time following the marriage of Janet’s brother and James daughter. The happy couple then moved to London for a time and spent several seasons in the Italian Riviera in order to escape the harsh Scottish winters until in 1911 James Tait Black passed away after a period of poor health. Janet would follow her husband seven years later in 1918, leaving in her will specific instructions which would establish the literary prize in memory of her husband, that the award would promote the creation of literature in Scotland for years to come. The prize went on to be so successfully renowned that it eventually eclipsed its founder, however a century after its creation new life is being breathed into her legacy.

For further information on the history of the James Tait Black Literary Prizes and Janet Coats Black please see the blog of Lucinda Byatt at https://textline.wordpress.com/2009/08/19/in-memory-of-janet-coats-90th-anniversary-of-scotlands-oldest-literary-prize/.

Report by Isabella Pacheco, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.

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